Improving Your Screenplay’s Theme

Theme is defined as the central and unifying idea developed throughout a work of art. It could be your central dramatic question, or the meaning your protagonist finds through their journey. Your theme holds the narrative elements of your story together. It is the core of your story summed up in one or two words. Theme is referred to as the one big idea.

If you’re having trouble pinpointing your theme, try to focus on the main conflict and the main force that drives the story forward. Start by generalizing the main conflict between the protagonist and antagonist.

Is your character falling in love with an opposing personality? Is your character coming to terms with the struggles of adolescence?

One exercise that might be helpful: try to simplify the heart of your story into a single word that flows throughout the entire body of work.

Here are 30 themes commonly found in stories. Can you find the general theme of your story?

And there are so many more to explore and choose from.

The theme of your story is revealed through all of your screenplay’s traits and elements — character, dialogue, description, setting, tone, genre, tropes, etc.

Here are some tips on improving your screenplay’s theme.

Character

Theme is intrinsically connected to your protagonist and their goals. Think of the theme as the stakes behind their actions. Oftentimes, the theme is the catalyst behind your screenplay’s conflict.

A catalyst is considered a substance that causes a reaction between two forces without itself being affected. It’s rooted in the underlying systemic issues already present in your characters’ world before the inciting incident occurs. Your protagonist may be unaware that these problems even exist.

The inciting incident then thrusts them out of their comfort zone and forces them to confront their flaws (or the flaws of their world) by overcoming some great obstacle.

What is your characters’ emotional connection to the conflict? What do they need to save or protect? What are the stakes? Why tell their story? Theme lies in the answers to all of these questions. Yet, that’s only one aspect.

Setting

Setting is an important thematic element simply because it’s the time and place where the conflict unfolds. If your story is a quest, surely the terrain along their journey cannot be friendly. The setting informs the motivation behind your character’s decisions and the obstacles in their path.

Your characters’ upbringing and worldview impacts their decision making, as well as their immediate setting. During our partner ScreenCraft’s 2020 Virtual Screenwriting Summit, filmmaker Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Series, Armageddon) discussed that it’s important for a character’s behavior to be real and responsive to his or her environment by knowing and utilizing the physical space the character inhabits.

The setting should also thematically reflect the tone, genre, characterization, dialogue, and other traits of your screenplay. The tone of a dark noir would be better set in the underbelly of a major city while an ensemble comedy would work better in an office building.

Dialogue

Dialogue is a great way to make the theme of your screenplay known. After all, everyone knows that with great power comes great responsibility. Taglines can encapsulate the entire driving force of your story.

It’s important to not come across as too preachy or hit the reader over the head. Avoid being hyperbolic or melodramatic. Thematic statements made by characters should feel natural.

You can establish your theme before The Lock-In at the end of Act I with a single line of dialogue that really drives home the point.

Thematic Patterning

One way that you can improve your theme with subtlety is through the use of recurring motifs or symbols. These details help reinforce and highlight your theme.

A motif is an image, narrative device, sound, detail, object, action, or line of dialogue that has symbolic significance in developing the theme.

In Psycho (1960), Norman Bates sits underneath birds of prey poised for attack while speaking to his next victim. In The Godfather, oranges represent death or danger. It’s no mistake that Harriet Tubman takes her first steps as a free woman at sunrise in Harriet (2020). The setting acts as a motif that’s symbolic of her transition from being enslaved to a free woman and the elements work together to keep the theme of freedom alive.

When all of the traits and elements of your screenplay work together to inform upon the theme, your screenplay becomes more cohesive. Work through each of your screenplay’s traits and make sure they all work toward the same goal: a screenplay unified by theme.

Kevin Nelson is a writer and director based in New York City, baby. He has written and produced critically acclaimed short films and music videos with incredibly talented artists, worked with anti-human trafficking organizations in Nepal, and would rather be in nature right now. Check out his Coverfly profile, see more madness on Instagram or follow his work on https://www.kevinpatricknelson.com